This was to be a talk about fantasy. But I have not been feeling very fanciful lately, and could not decide what to say; so I have been going about picking people’s brains for ideas. “What about fantasy? Tell me something about fantasy.” And one friend of mine said, “All right, I’ll tell you something fantastic. Ten years ago, I went to the children’s room of the library of such-and-such a city, and asked for The Hobbit; and the librarian told me, ‘Oh, we keep that only in the adult collection; we don’t feel that escapism is good for children.”‘
My friend and I had a good laugh and shudder over that, and we agreed that things have changed a great deal in these past ten years. That kind of moralistic censorship of works of fantasy is very uncommon now, in the children’s libraries. But the fact that the children’s libraries have become oases in the desert doesn’t mean that there isn’t still a desert. The point of view from which that librarian spoke still exists. She was merely reflecting, in perfect good faith, something that goes very deep in the American character: a moral disapproval of fantasy, a disapproval so intense, and often so aggressive, that I cannot help but see it as arising, fundamentally, from fear.
So: Why are Americans afraid of dragons?
Before I try to answer my question, let me say that it isn’t only Americans who are afraid of dragons. I suspect that almost all very highly technological peoples are more or less antifantasy. There are several national literatures which, like ours, have had no tradition of adult fantasy, for the past several hundred years: the French, for instance. But then you have the Germans, who have a good deal; and the English, who have it, and love it, and do it better than anyone else. So this fear of dragons is not merely a Western, or a technological, phenomenon. But I do not want to get into these vast historical questions; I will speak of modern Americans, the only people I know well enough to talk about.
In wondering why Americans are afraid of dragons, I began to realize that a great many Americans are not only antifantasy, but altogether antifiction. We tend, as a people, to look upon all works of the imagination either as suspect, or as contemptible.
“My wife reads novels. I haven’t got the time.”
“I used to read that science fiction stuff when I was a teenager, but of course I don’t now. “Fairy stories are for kids. I live in the real world.”
Who speaks so? Who is it that dismisses War and Peace, The Time Machine, and A Midsummer Night’s Dream with this perfect self-assurance? It is, I fear, the man in the street – the hardworking, over-thirty American male – the men who run this country.
Such a rejection of the entire art of fiction is related to several American characteristics: our Puritanism, our work ethic, our profitmindedness, and even our sexual mores.
To read War and Peace or The Lord of the Rings plainly is not “work” – you do it for pleasure. And if it cannot be justified as “educational” or as “self-improvement,” then, in the Puritan value system, it can only be self-indulgence or escapism. For pleasure is not a value, to the Puritan; on the contrary, it is a sin.
Equally, in the businessman’s value system, if an act does not bring in an immediate, tangible profit, it has no justification at all. Thus the only person who has an excuse to read Tolstoy or Tolkien is the English teacher, because he gets paid for it. But our businessman might allow himself to read a best-seller now and then: not because it is a good book, but because it is a best-seller – it is a success, it has made money. To the strangely mystical mind of the money-changer, this justifies its existence; and by reading it he may participate, a little, in the power and manna of its success. If this is not magic, by the way, I don’t know what is.
The last element, the sexual one, is more complex. I hope I will not be understood as being sexist if I say that, within our culture, I believe that this antifiction attitude is basically a male one. The American boy and man is very commonly forced to define his maleness by rejecting certain traits, certain human gifts and potentialities, which our culture defines as “womanish” or “childish.” And one of these traits or potentialities is, in cold sober fact, the absolutely essential human faculty of imagination.
Having got this far, I went quickly to the dictionary.
The Shorter Oxford Dictionary says; “Imagination. 1. The action of imagining, or forming a mental concept of what is not actually present to the senses; 2. The mental consideration of actions or events not yet in existence.”
Very well; I certainly can let “absolutely essential human faculty” stand. But I must narrow the definition to fit our present subject. By “imagination,” then, I personally mean the free play of the mind, both intellectual and sensory. By “play” I mean recreation, re-creation, the recombination of what is known into what is new. By “free” I mean that the action is done without an immediate object of profit – spontaneously. That does not mean, however, that there may not be a purpose behind the free play of the mind, a goal; and the goal may be a very serious object indeed. Children’s imaginative play is clearly a practicing at the acts and emotions of adulthood; a child who did not play would not become mature. As for the free play of an adult mind, its result may be War and Peace, or the theory of relativity.
To be free, after all, is not to be undisciplined. I should say that the discipline of the imagination may in fact be the essential method or technique of both art and science. It is our Puritanism, insisting that discipline means repression or punishment, which confuses the subject. To discipline something, in the proper sense of the word, does not mean to repress it, but to train it – to encourage it to grow, and act, and be fruitful, whether it is a peach tree or a human mind.
I think that a great many American men have been taught just the opposite. They have learned to repress their imagination, to reject it as something childish or effeminate, unprofitable, and probably sinful.
They have learned to fear it. But they have never learned to discipline it at all.
Now, I doubt that the imagination can be suppressed. If you truly eradicated it in a child, he would grow up to be an eggplant. Like all our evil propensities, the imagination will out. But if it is rejected and despised, it will grow into wild and weedy shapes; it will be deformed. At its best, it will be mere ego-centered daydreaming; at its worst, it will be wishful thinking, which is a very dangerous occupation when it is taken seriously. Where literature is concerned, in the old, truly Puritan days, the only permitted reading was the Bible. Nowadays, with our secular Puritanism, the man who refuses to read novels because it’s unmanly to do so, or because they aren’t true, will most likely end up watching bloody detective thrillers on the television, or reading hack Westerns or sports stories, or going in for pornography, from Playboy on down. It is his starved imagination, craving nourishment, that forces him to do so. But he can rationalize such entertainment by saying that it is realistic – after all, sex exists, and there are criminals, and there are baseball players, and there used to be cowboys – and also by saying that it is virile, by which he means that it doesn’t interest most women.
That all these genres are sterile, hopelessly sterile, is a reassurance to him, rather than a defect. If they were genuinely realistic, which is to say genuinely imagined and imaginative, he would be afraid of them. Fake realism is the escapist literature of our time. And probably the ultimate escapist reading is that masterpiece of total unreality, the daily stock market report.
Now what about our man’s wife? She probably wasn’t required to squelch her private imagination in order to play her expected role in life, but she hasn’t been trained to discipline it, either. She is allowed to read novels, and even fantasies. But, lacking training and encouragement, her fancy is likely to glom on to very sickly fodder, such things as soap operas, and “true romances,” and nursy novels, and historicosentimental novels, and all the rest of the baloney ground out to replace genuine imaginative works by the artistic sweatshops of a society that is profoundly distrustful of the uses of the imagination.
What, then, are the uses of the imagination?
You see, I think we have a terrible thing here: a hardworking, upright, responsible citizen, a full-grown, educated person, who is afraid of dragons, and afraid of hobbits, and scared to death of fairies. It’s funny, but it’s also terrible. Something has gone very wrong. I don’t know what to do about it but to try and give an honest answer to that person’s question, even though he often asks it in an aggressive and contemptuous tone of voice. “What’s the good of it all?” he says. “Dragons and hobbits and little green men – what’s the use of it?”
The truest answer, unfortunately, he won’t even listen to. He won’t hear it. The truest answer is, “The use of it is to give you pleasure and delight.”
“I haven’t got the time,” he snaps, swallowing a Maalox pill for his ulcer and rushing off to the golf course.
So we try the next-to-truest answer. It probably won’t go down much better, but it must be said: “The use of imaginative fiction is to deepen your understanding of your world, and your fellow men, and your own feelings, and your destiny.”
To which I fear he will retort, “Look, I got a raise last year, and I’m giving my family the best of everything, we’ve got two cars and a color TV. I understand enough of the world!”
And he is right, unanswerably right, if that is what he wants, and all he wants.
The kind of thing you learn from reading about the problems of a hobbit who is trying to drop a magic ring into an imaginary volcano has very little to do with your social status, or material success, or income. Indeed, if there is any relationship, it is a negative one. There is an inverse correlation between fantasy and money. That is a law, known to economists as Le Guin’s Law. If you want a striking example of Le Guin’s Law, just give a lift to one of those people along the roads who own nothing but a backpack, a guitar, a fine head of hair, a smile, and a thumb. Time and again, you will find that these waifs have read The Lord of the Rings – some of them can practically recite it. But now take Aristotle Onassis, or J. Paul Getty: could you believe that those men ever had anything to do, at any age, under any circumstances, with a hobbit?
But, to carry my example a little further, and out of the realm of economics, did you ever notice how very gloomy Mr. Onassis and Mr. Getty and all those billionaires look in their photographs? They have this strange, pinched look, as if they were hungry. As if they were hungry for something, as if they had lost something and were trying to think where it could be, or perhaps what it could be, what it was they’ve lost.
Could it be their childhood?
So I arrive at my personal defense of the uses of the imagination, especially in fiction, and most especially in fairy tale, legend, fantasy, science fiction, and the rest of the lunatic fringe. I believe that maturity is not an outgrowing, but a growing up; that an adult is not a dead child, but a child who survived. I believe that all the best faculties of a mature human being exist in the child, and that if these faculties are encouraged in youth they will act well and wisely in the adult, but if they are repressed and denied in the child they will stunt and cripple the adult personality. And finally, I believe that one of the most deeply human, and humane, of these faculties is the power of imagination: so that it is our pleasant duty, as librarians, or teachers, or parents, or writers, or simply as grownups, to encourage that faculty of imagination in our children, to encourage it to grow freely, to flourish like the green bay tree, by giving it the best, absolutely the best and purest, nourishment that it can absorb. And never, under any circumstances, to squelch it, or sneer at it, or imply that it is childish, or unmanly, or untrue.
For fantasy is true, of course. It isn’t factual, but it is true. Children know that. Adults know it too, and that is precisely why many of them are afraid of fantasy. They know that its truth challenges, even threatens, all that is false, all that is phony, unnecessary, and trivial in the life they have let themselves be forced into living. They are afraid of dragons, because they are afraid of freedom.
So I believe that we should trust our children. Normal children do not confuse reality and fantasy – they confuse them much less often than we adults do (as a certain great fantasist pointed out in a story called “The Emperor’s New Clothes”). Children know perfectly well that unicorns aren’t real, but they also know that books about unicorns, if they are good books, are true books. All too often, that’s more than Mummy and Daddy know; for, in denying their childhood, the adults have denied half their knowledge, and are left with the sad, sterile little fact: “Unicorns aren’t real.” And that fact is one that never got anybody anywhere (except in the story “The Unicorn in the Garden,” by another great fantasist, in which it is shown that a devotion to, the unreality of unicorns may get you straight into the loony bin). It is by such statements as, “Once upon a time there was a dragon,” or “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit” – it is by such beautiful non-facts that we fantastic human beings may arrive, in our peculiar fashion, at the truth.
Ursula Le Guin’s collection of essays, The Language of the Night, and found her 1974 essay “Why Are Americans Afraid of Dragons?”